Writings from the Road

by Claire Coté

6 April, 2008        Leaving Home

Funny how not knowing enables me to be open. Not knowing what to be worried about leaves the stage clear for a brilliant improvisation.

According to Becky’s Uncle:
The Danes invaded Scotland and many English words have come from this event.
There are Scandinavian settlements on the Isle of Sky…. (Where some of my ancestors came from).

7 April, 2008        Leaving UK

The white cliffs of Dover towered over the town, looking as cheerful as possible in the bright sunshine. But even the sun could not blot out the dingy feeling, the nets over the windows, the liminality of this place of transition, where the locals may watch thousands of people pass through every day on their way to somewhere else. I wonder if they ever want to board the ferries and sail away?
Mark said that the water 12 miles off UK port belongs to the UK. But like birds passing through arbitrary human political boundaries, the waves wash through this border, effortlessly erasing with each tide. This journey could be about borders. It could be about passing through borders; transgressing against our own borders; creating new borders within this new quaternary of travelers; quietly reinforcing some borders and braking-down others within our minds.
Today we’ve passed from land to sea and back to land; from England to France, Belgium and the Netherlands. I don’t know the places we’ve driven through today. I no more feel that I know them than I did before, however I know of them. They have become real to me. Brussels has moved from an ethereal place refernced in books and conversation to a destination on a motorway sign.

8 April, 2008        Germany

There is no speed limit on the German motorways and people abide by this suggestion, obediently whizzing past us. The roads themselves are excellent, many of them built by Hitler, who used them to quickly transport his armies. To benefit now from Hitler’s initiative turns me cold. However in the US, particularly in the Los Angeles basin, the roads built by General Motors that replaced the cable cars and tramlines have created another set of terrible problems. Are roads always built to make a few people richer? The hundreds of lorries on the roads seem to answer this question. It’s strange to witness food and goods on route to the store shelves where we are used to seeing them.

9 April, 2008        Poland

Small roads have led us through the heartland of Poland. Much of the land has been flat, open fields planted with something that looks like turnips. Many fields are being tilled and are yet unplanted. At one stage in the navigation adventure we were directed by signs to a little road running along a field which was paved with rounded cobbles. It was a sweet road reminiscent of past times. Men working on the bank above looked at us with sober weathered faces and dark mustaches as we drove by. When we decided we were not on the right road we turned around. The men were not amused, but we asked them and they directed us to the longer paved route. On this paved road we noticed a section with chunks of pavement missing and underneath the ancient cobbles showed through. The thin and recently added venire of modernity only seems to go so deep in Poland.

Following locational information provided by Anna’s research, we found our way to Buskupin, an Iron Age settlement that had originally been built on an island in the middle of a lake. In time the heavy wood and earthen fortified settlement sank the island was preserved in the acidic oxygen-free environment of the lake. 2600 years later a schoolteacher out with his class for a fieldtrip in the area, noticed some stumps sticking out of the water. It was then excavated and partially reconstructed. The exceptional preservation of the wood provided accurate data for reconstruction of up to 1 meter above ground. The way that the wood was cut, laid and joined was all documented and followed in the reconstruction. My resistance to reconstruction faltered in experiencing the settlement and knowing the accuracy of its basis. The reconstruction allowed us to experience an interpretation of the architecture that existed over 2500 years ago in Poland at that lake.

10 April, 2008     Poland

On the journey I am struck by how one thing leads to another. On both nights in Poland a shot in the dark has led to warm beds and an interesting experience. If Mark had not seen a sign for camping and we had not decided to go right instead of left at a fork in the road we would be experiencing a different reality now. This happens all the time in life I am certain, but when traveling I suddenly become aware of it.

11 April, 2008        Bailoweiza, Poland

We decided to drive to the top of the restricted area of Bialoweiza National Park away from the more populated lower area. With our heightened sense of observation and eagerness to explore everything was fascinating and worthy of a photograph. We found large piles of Bison shit, many footprints, and what we now know to be tinder fungi. Mark found a stick and began to whittle it with a piece of flit he found along the trail as well. As he walked around with the stick he noticed the tinder fungi along the way, tapping them with his stick. Each one made a different sound depending on its size. The forest became a place for fungi orchestra.

12 April, 2008        Bialoweiza, Poland

At 6 am we set off on a guided tour with Eric the resident biologist/ornothogist at the park. His knowledge of the area, its species, its history and his personal history with the place for the past 30 years created a thick tangible atmosphere. Through his sometimes broken English we had a window into his world of birdcalls and stories told of animals in the forest left by interaction with it and each other. Everywhere we looked he found a sign of some animal presence or the web of relationships within the ecosystem – seeds dropped on the path by a blackcap, rings pecked into a tree by a woodpecker, vole homes, and the inhabitants of a fallen tree habitat.

13 April, 2008        National Park, Lithuania

I am awake before everyone this morning. The air is calm and cool with a gentle breeze coming off the lake. I went out to the little dock below our campsite to feel the water and the lake was a deep grey. There were ducks bobbing and plunging in now and then for food. I woke to the sound of a woodpecker. Its rapid-fire tap-peck-roll now accompanies my writing in short bursts at 20 beats per second.

We found the bee-keeping museum perched on a grassy hill. Scattered down the hill were long birch bark and hollow log beehives lying lengthwise on little legs. Each one was a sculpture, displaying great care, craftsmanship and knowledge of bees. We walked the extensive grounds discovering the numerous beehive types and designs – intricately carved logs showing complex scenes with carefully places holes for the bees to enter and exit, free standing life-size people in traditional Lithuanian clothing with entry holes at their navel, traditional hives with reed bundle roofs, and rows of beehive boxes colorfully painted and decorated as miniature Lithuanian homes. I longed to meet the craftspeople and to see the place abuzz with bees in the summer. Bee culture and the human – bee relationship is extensive and deep I think. Each culture seems to have honey hidden in it somewhere. I have become fascinated by honeycomb.

Driving through the Baltic States my ignorance about their peoples and their histories is almost tangible. Strange that even with my general ignorance of history that I rely on it more for context and cultural reference than I realize. What was it like to live here under soviet rule? What was it like before that? What changed when they joined the European Union? How did the two World Wars affect them? So many unanswered questions elicited by the passing landscape.

We drove straight through Latvia without stopping. 10 kilometers before the Estonian border we pulled off the road to park by the Baltic Sea and ran out onto the sand. Anna and Becky put their feet in. And then in true campers’ “English Style” we made tea on the camp stove in the frigid wind. We gulped the tepid tea and drove on to look for a campsite.

14 April, 2008        Estonia

On our way a peninsula famous for migratory bird watching, we stopped at a ruined Orthodox church, destroyed during the communist regime and converted for use as grain storage. The interior was beautiful with a fallen in roof opening out to the blue sky echoed by ultramarine paint remnants on the walls.

At the peninsula on the Baltic called Puise Nina, we found a lovely lapping tide, emerald wet hair seaweed, migrating bird flocks, and a beach to comb. On the beach I was stunned to find a fossil covered in the honeycomb pattern with which I had become fascinated the day before. As we looked more we found fossils of the pattern in all sizes and all variations of thickness.

15 April, 2008        Tallinn, Estonia

Quick muesli in a cup and off to find the chocolate shop at the Master’s Square that we spotted the night before. We found it transformed by daylight. The artist cooperative shops around the parameter were just opening their doors. The array of chocolate drinks was incredible: from orange-ginger, sea salt-honey-vanilla, rum-raison-chile to one with Gorgonzola cheese! I collected sounds and asked the barista to tell us the menu in Estonian. She also described the history of the Master’s Square, pointing out that it contained the oldest building in Tallinn, which was once used as a women’s prison. The shop overflowed with sumptuous smells, colors, tastes, textures, history and creative culture.

16 April, 2008        Helsinki, Finland

Our trip by car to the conference was referenced and commended in relation to the environmental impact of bringing people from disparate places together for such an event. I have yet to compare the environmental impact of the four of us flying or driving to Helsinki. Regardless of the question of the carbon footprint, for us the journey was a preposition for arrival. We arrived knowing how the land morphs, changes and stays the same from the island of England across the continent and up to Finland.  My mind, if not my body, has begun to conceive of the natural, physical, cultural and psychological distance from there to here. We have driven through National borders and felt their absence. We have crossed natural borders (rivers, forests, lakes, and hills) and noticed their presence. We have followed our noses and stumbled upon beauty, sadness, depression and happiness. We have been lost and have found our way again. Having done these things, arriving at the conference feels different. We experienced a striking example of the speed of travel to richness of experience and connection to place ratio. Walking with a beehive on one’s back, so slowly that the bees could find their way back to it along the route is the highest ratio. Flying is the lowest. Our journey fell somewhere comfortably in the middle.

Language and communication, though sidelined in certain ways during this journey because of our choice to remain focused on natural points of interest and camping, came closely into focus at the conference. It was conducted in both Finnish and English and simultaneous translation was available in both languages. During presentations in Finnish I found myself preoccupied, wondering about the tones, approaches, moods, styles, and speeds of the translators. This new layer mediating the already complex, multilayered phenomena of communication was simultaneously necessary, frustrating, beautiful and confounding. “Accurate translation” reminds me of “objective research.” There was one translator who was difficult for me to follow, another whose clarity drew me in and either or neither may or may not have conveyed the character of the original Finnish phrases being translated. I sat in wonder at the collection of speakers of different languages drawn together by a common interest.

17 April, 2008         Helsinki, Finland to the Baltic Sea

At the evening conference reception while reindeer meat on crackers was passed around, strong, seemingly-proud-to-be-Finnish women sang songs and laughed together. If I could gage a culture’s embrace of it’s humanity by it’s willingness to burst into song, these Finnish women artists represented their culture well. I felt a yearning to be a part of a culture in which bursting into song at a conference reception was normal.

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